When Johnny Hoogerland ascended the podium to be awarded the polka dot jersey as the Tour de France’s king of the mountains, if you’re anything like me, you exhaled in relief. At a certain level we could relax with the assurance that justice could be found on such a public stage.
What I doubt any of us expected was seeing Hoogerland overcome with emotion. I am unable to imagine anyone stonefacing the screen as the Dutchman struggled to bring composure to the stage where all achievement is vaunted. That moment may go down as the defining episode of this year’s Tour. It stands as a testament not to athletic achievement but the esteem that comes from the struggle for achievement that underlies all athletic endeavors.
Among cyclists, I’ve yet to hear a single person denigrate that moment of emotion as anything other than the sheer shock of incredulity at having managed something that would for most of us be manifestly unthinkable. Not that climbing out of barbed wire and riding our bike even five miles is impossible—no, the point is that to most of us such an act is unthinkable. After an accident in which our heels have pinwheeled past our head on our way to landing on a bed of nails, getting back on the bike is pointless.
And that’s the difference. Within my life, no bike race I might conceivably win has the power to redefine me so completely as a person that getting back on the bike becomes a reasonable sacrifice. After all, that’s what we’re talking about. Getting back on the bike is a sacrifice; in doing so, you are giving up a level of wound care and pain relief that are the first priority to the rest of us. Aside from the suffering we accept cycling to be, getting back on the bike is guaranteed pain.
The effort Hoogerland made to continue in the Tour is an object lesson in what it takes to reach this level of the sport. However, the real gravity in his effort is what it tells us of Hoogerland’s future, how he views the value of his work to this point in his life, the value of being selected to race with a pro team, being selected for the Tour, the question mark of what he has yet to achieve as an athlete. It’s easy to see how the effort he made to swing a leg back over the bike and resume riding was a statement of gratitude. Most cyclists will never get the chance to ride the Tour.
You want to know what it takes to don the polka dot jersey? I suggest that each of those stitches is but a tiny window into that work.
Hoogerland’s name was barely known to most of us before the Tour started. In my head he was just another Dutch cyclist. Now he’s a hero, not of the Tour or of cycling, but of the human spirit. After all, who walks out on a dream as the whole of the world gasps for you?
Image: John Pierce, Photosport International